Skip to main content

How to clean up your RSS feed reader

Nothing motivates me to clean up like having to move house. When I move house, which I do more often than I like, I see it as a time to purge junk and scrub the new place from corner to corner before moving in any of my stuff. And that's how I feel about RSS feed readers right now.

As you're no doubt aware, yesterday marked the end of Google Reader, and Reader users now need a new home (unless they're planning on giving up on RSS altogether). However, change can be a good thing, because a move to a new RSS feed reader could mean it's time to clean house, get rid of all those dead blog feeds, cut the news feeds that are in fact blatant celebrity gossip channels, and reorganise what's left into a neat set of folders.

Here are some ideas on how you can clean up and organise your RSS feeds quickly and efficiently.

Organize by theme

Probably the most common way people organise their RSS feeds is to group them by theme or topic. For example, a folder labelled "Business News" would contain all your favourite RSS feeds for business news, naturally.

I have folders of feeds called "Food Blogs US" and "Food Blogs AUS" where I keep an eye on the American and Australian food scenes respectively (a lot of neat food-related stuff has been happening in Sydney these last few years, by the way).

This solution works if you like to read your feeds based on topic. But in some cases, depending on your subscriptions and how you read them, it doesn't make sense to organise your RSS feeds by topic.

The "email" approach

Another tactic would be to move all the feeds you don't read all that often into folders, and stick everything else into an "Inbox" folder.

Most of us have plenty of feeds that we only glance at or scan, and hardly ever read. You could put these lesser-read feeds into folders labelled whatever you choose, and leave your most important feeds in a folder called "_INBOX," using that underscore to make sure it gets sorted to the top of the pile alphabetically.

This approach mimics what some people do with email: Leave the most important stuff in the inbox where it's most visible and move everything else off to a folder. Pretty smart, yet entirely simple, right?

But actually, this doesn't work equally well in all RSS feed readers. It's a breeze in the new Digg Reader because that service lets you order your feeds and folders any which way. Feedly, on the other hand, puts all your loose feeds into a folder called "Uncategorised." In other words, you can't have loose feeds. Everything must be in a folder, but you can drag those folders into any order you like. In The Old Reader any uncategorised feeds go into a "Subscriptions" folder.

If you want ultimate control over your folder organisation and feed list order, Digg Reader is probably your best bet, although it comes with other limitations, such as the inability to import OPML files from other services. If you can't import an OPML file, you won't be able to import your feeds from another service (you will have access to your Google Reader feeds if you managed to set up Digg Reader prior to 1 July); and you won't be able to do the other tricks described below in the section entitled Cleaning up the OPML File.

Organise by how you read

Another way to organise folders in your RSS feed reader would be not by theme but by how you read, which is what I started to hint at in that last tip about mimicking the structure of email.

Heck, you could even start with a folder called "INBOX" where you put feeds you check most frequently. Maybe your next feed folder is called "Headline News" and contains RSS feeds of breaking news sources and blogs that you use to scan headlines. Another folder might be called "Long-Form Reading," for feeds of content that tend to take more time and focus, which you typically put aside some time for each week. Maybe there's another folder called "Monthly Check-in." You get the idea.

Cleaning up in the OPML file

What about getting rid of old feeds? It can be truly time consuming to weed them out one by one using the provided tools inside your RSS feed reader. That's fine for removing only a few feeds, but for bigger jobs, there's a shortcut that will cut down your time significantly.

You can instead do some cleanup work right in the OPML file. If you exported your data from Google Reader through Google Takeout, it's the file in the downloaded folder called "subscriptions.xml." Yes, it ends in XML, and yet it's called an OPML file. It's confusing.

In any event, that file contains lines of code indicating all the feeds to which you had subscribed in Google Reader, as well as how you organised them.

You can delete old feed subscriptions much faster if you just edit that file. Here are some step-by-step instructions on how to do just that:

1. Right click on the file subscriptions.xml.

2. Choose "Open with" and select a text editing program. On a Mac, I used Text Edit.

3. Select File, then Save As, and create a copy of the file so that you have the original copy in case you make a mistake.

4. If you're not used to looking at code, the page is going to seem like gobbledygook, but don't let it scare you off. Drag the window as wide as you can make it, as the lines will be easier to read that way.

5. If you know the names of the feeds you want to delete, the quickest way to identify them is to use the Find command, which is Ctrl+F in Windows or Command (Apple key)+F in Mac OS. Type in some word that you know is the feed you want to delete. For example, I have a friend with a blog that she has abandoned called "Is it Ripe Yet?" so I can do a search for the word "ripe," and voilà.

6. Rather than start deleting willy-nilly, I decided to just add a bunch of paragraph returns around the items I want to delete. That let me isolate them and review them before I started to wipe them out. Each entry will be entirely contained in angle brackets, like .

Here's a real example using my friend's now defunct blog:

So, you'd want to delete that whole thing, starting with the open angle bracket and ending with the final close angle bracket.

7. Then just go ahead and review what you've isolated and delete them. If you're feeling saucy, you can manipulate the file in other ways, too. For example, you can change the labels or folder organisation of your feeds by editing that XML file. It's just code. It's not going to bite. (But do save the original file in case you mess up.)

8. Finally, save the file, and be sure to append XML to the end of the file name. Your computer might send up a warning sign, but just tell it that yes, you want XML.

Remember, you have the original file saved separately in case you mess up.

Another way to find dead feeds

If all you want to do is identify feeds that haven't been updated in a long time, another way to do so without looking at code would be to import your subscriptions.xml file from Google Takeout to The Old Reader. You don't have to commit to using The Old Reader for good — although you might choose to because it's a great service —but you can still use it to your advantage. Here's how:

1. Open an account on The Old Reader.

2. Choose to upload an OPML file. When prompted, pick the file called subscriptions.xml.

3. Let The Old Reader import your feeds, and when it's done, take a look at the right side of the screen. The Old Reader lists any feeds that haven't been updated in at least three months here.

4. You can now delete those feeds either from within The Old Reader, or by editing the XML file as described in the previous section.

5. If you don't want to use The Old Reader as your new RSS feed reading service, just export your OPML data when you're done with the cleanup job. Go to Settings, and look at the very bottom of the page. Way down at the foot you'll find a link saying "Export your feeds." Click it, and a list of your feeds will open in a new tab. Right click it and select Save As, and put that puppy wherever you want. This file will have OPML as its file extension.

6. You can now upload that new OPML file to whatever service you choose, so long as it accepts uploads.

Cleaning house

Getting shoved off Google Reader could be just what you needed if your RSS feeds had got out of control. If you're going to take the time to migrate to a new service, you might as well also use that opportunity to make your reading experience a little more pleasant and streamlined, too.

Incidentally, if you're mulling over your RSS reader options post-Google Reader, you might want to check out our feature on The best free RSS readers (which includes some we've mentioned here, such as The Old Reader).